Very Best Dragons in Fantasy Novels

Okay, I’m sure I’ve put together lists of dragons from time to time, but I saw some tweet or something that asked plaintively, “Can someone suggest great dragons”, and of course I immediately thought YES.

I love dragons (doesn’t everyone?) and have included dragons as plot elements or characters in … hmm … well, quite a few of my books. Let me count them quickly — The City in the Lake, The Floating Islands, The Keeper of the Mist (wyverns, but lets not be picky); Winter of Ice and Iron — those are more plot elements than characters, though in the first two, a dragon does speak once or twice. House of Shadows — I’d say that dragon is both a plot elements and a character.

Only five! It feels like more. Oh, there is one more, come to think of it — the beautiful dragons in “Lila,” the story in Beyond the Dreams We Know. I’m not sure whether that’s my favorite story in the collection. To be perfectly honest, I do think that all the stories in this collection are good, which makes it hard to pick one out as my personal favorite. If not “Lila,” it might be “Audition.” It’s truly hard for me to choose!

But back to dragons. Not just great dragons, but great novels. No evil dragons in this list, because I prefer non-evil dragons. They don’t need to be nice, however. Just not evil. Let me see. All right, this time I’m going to try to put these dragons in rough order, with my favorite at the end of the list.

10) Dragon Bones / Dragon Blood by Patricia Briggs. This is a dragon in human form. (Sort of in human form.) Later, we do see him as a dragon. I like this duology quite a bit. I like the friendship between the protagonist and the dragon. There are plenty of good characters and neat situations. If anybody’s read her Paranormal Mercy Thompson series, but hasn’t tried her secondary world fantasy, well, here you go, you might give this duology a try. Vice versa too; you probably know that it was the Mercy Thompson series that made me take a stab at my own werewolf series. Despite quibbles with later books, I still like this series a lot.

9) Dragon Keeper and that whole series by Robin Hobb. For me, Robin Hobb can be hit or miss. Sometimes her characters can be so horrifically stupid and incompetent that I can hardly stand it, or so unpleasant I can hardly stand it, or both. Her pacing is often slow, which in this case doesn’t necessarily appeal to me even though I don’t mind slower books in general. But I liked this series a lot. Nearly all the characters are quite appealing, we don’t get extensive villain points of view, the villains basically all get what they have coming to them, the good guys get their lives in order, and oh, oops, dragons, nearly extinct at the beginning of the story, suddenly become the dominant species of the world. Not sure the humans exactly realize this, but yep. The dragons are not remotely the special magic telepathic friends we see all over in fantasy novels. They are not, in fact, very friendly. They most certainly have their own desires and imperatives and aren’t very interested in what humans think about that. I liked this because I’m not keen on the special magic friend style of fantasy creature.

8) A Natural History of Dragons and that whole series by Marie Brennan

Blessed with amazing cover art and also nice interior art, so this is a great series to get in paper rather than ebook format. The dragons here are very much natural animals. Studying them is like studying tigers, only even more dangerous. I love, love, love the way Marie Brennan handled this series; it’s quite remarkable if you’ve read any accounts written by real-world naturalists in the 1800s or early 1900s because Brennan captures the feel of those expeditions, toned down a bit for modern sensibilities. An interesting through-line results in a startling conclusion that you can’t see coming in the first book. At least, I sure didn’t see it coming that early.

7) Temeraire and at least part of that series by Naomi Novik. Temeraire is a lot more like your special magic friend than some of the dragons above. I like him a lot, but the devotion of dragons to their human riders is not my favorite thing in fiction. On the other hand, the bratty fire-breathing dragon is such a total brat that I despise her, even though she is not nearly so willing to do what her person wants. Also, the worldbuilding does set my teeth on edge a bit because the dragons and how they fit into human society is so ecologically impossible. I loved the first book, liked the series less as it continued, and haven’t read the last three or so. I believe some of you have mentioned that they are better than some of the middle installments?

6) Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley, which amazingly enough is a standalone. Readers either really enjoy this book or else they don’t. I do. I understand the negative comments some reviewers make, but I personally liked the voice, the protagonist, and the story itself. It’s very much slice-of-life fantasy that gets into the daily work of raising a tiny baby dragon.

5) Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. Technically part of a series, but in this case I must strongly suggest that you may want to read only the first book. Barbara Hambly was apparently going through a tough patch when she wrote the other books in the series and they are grim grim grim. Not sure I put that strongly enough. They are HORRIFIC. Also, as I recall, they don’t really move the characters in ways that fit the first book. Seriously, I’m not kidding, the first book stands alone, while the others ought to be plastered with warning labels on every square inch of the cover.

However, Dragonsbane itself is excellent for a whole lot of reasons; plus I routinely reach for it when I want to demonstrate what I mean by a beginning that places the protagonist in the setting.

Also, not the first time I’ve said this, but the original Michael Whelan cover is so much better than the current cover.

Seriously, I’m not sure why this isn’t clear to publishers, but: if you have a Michael Whelan cover on any book, leave it there. Do not replace it. Whatever cover art you replace it with will inevitably be worse. I mean, look at this image! Who else could capture this ambiguity in the dragon’s feelings about the protagonist? Whelan captured it perfectly! A guy squaring off against a fire-breathing monster is NOTHING compared to the above cover.

4) Dealing with Dragons and that series by Patricia Wrede. These dragons are mostly people disguised as dragons, which as a rule I don’t care for. But the series is so delightful that I can’t help but make an exception. It’s a MG series, but very much worth a look for anyone. The whole series is totally charming.

3) Tea With the Black Dragon by RA MacAvoy. And yes, okay, I realize I’m stretching a point. Is Mayland Long really a dragon? Hard to be absolutely sure. But even if we never see proof that Long is a dragon … yeah, he’s a dragon. Also, this is an elegant and delightful short novel. I ought to have thought of it for my “perfect little fantasy novels” post, because it fits right in that category. It’s, let me see, 138 pp, says Amazon. Basically a novella; I hadn’t realized that.

2) Wings of Fire by Tui Sutherland. My favorite MG series! Almost no humans at all — every important character is a dragon. Beautifully written, fun to read, plotting that surprised me from time to time, basically I highly recommend this series. The first five form one plot arc; the second five form a second plot arc; I suppose the last five also form a plot arc, but I haven’t read those. Here are my comments about #6 through #10.

  1. The Cygnet and the Firebird by Patricia McKillip. Unfortunately, the story does not really come to a satisfactory conclusion. On the other hand, this is probably my all-time favorite dragon. If you haven’t read this, you really must, just for the dragon. The first book — The Sorceress and the Cygnet — is not necessary for the second, but it’s beautiful and you should read it first because why not. Also, the ending is more of an ending, although admittedly it may leave you saying, “Wait, what happened?” I have to acknowledge that endings are not necessarily Patricia McKillip’s strength, but still! Her novels are so beautiful! And the dragon is great.

Did I point to your favorite dragons? If I missed one that you especially love, drop that in the comments!

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18 thoughts on “Very Best Dragons in Fantasy Novels”

  1. I rather like the Bookwyrms in Merceces Lackey’s One Good Knight. From the much underrated Five Hundred Kingdoms series, probably better than any of the more popular things Lackey wrote. (The series is handicapped by being published by Harlequin so there MUST be F/M romance; some of the books might be even better without that requirement)

  2. My favourites from your list are Dragonhaven, Dealing with Dragons (et al) and Tea with the Black Dragon (and its sequel, Twisting the Rope, though that’s a bit less spectacularly good).

  3. I think Novik realized the impossibility of dragon economics about the time she started feeding them grain mash and meat soup. A couple hundred dragons are just barely possible in that case. (Though the breeding grounds are still right out.)

  4. I really enjoy Zen Cho’s dragons—from the dragon who descends on London (and falls for a very practical Malaysian med student) in “Prudence and the Dragon,” to the serpent-like imugi striving to become a dragon in “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.”

  5. The Dragon of Calor Diman in Fiovanvar. Gets a very small scene, but it is potent, and definitely shows the dragon as a character.

    If I hadn’t been beaten to it I’d have suggested the dragon from your House duo. And McKillip’s.

  6. Also the dragons in Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. They are not scaly humans. They are creatures for whom Victorian era restrictions are based on biology. It’s a Trollope pastiche.

  7. A Book Dragon by Donn Kushner

    The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip also has a very good dragon.

  8. Kim Aippersbach

    Tooth and Claw is brilliant!

    Rachel Hartman’s dragons in Seraphina are nicely Other, getting along in a prickly sort of way with humans. They can turn into a human form, and she does a good job of making them still very dragon-y when they look human.

    Tanya Huff has a great adolescent dragon-boy in her Enchantment Emporium, which is the beginning to a very funny urban fantasy series.

    And The Invisible Library series is set in a multiverse constantly warring between the forces of order, in the form of dragons, and chaos, in the form of fey. Lots of dragon politics, and Librarians negotiating uncomfortable truces. This is also a very funny series.

    I like LeGuin’s dragons, too.

    I really need to read/re-read more McKillip.

  9. I really love the Tea Dragon graphic novel series; most of those dragons are pets, but there’s also a dragon dragon.

    And, dragons are pretty integral to Wen Spencer’s Elfhome series, but they’re not main characters.

    I also still have a soft spot for Pern, which I’m kinda surprised hasn’t come up.

  10. The Teen just reminded me of the dragons from G. Martin’s Giftwish and Catchfire. one is an earth dragon and swims through the ground. The other is air. They play a major role, one per book. I loved those books, so does the Teen. They also gave us a family shorthand of ‘giftwishing’ meaning to try to manipulate prophecy so it looks like it’s being achieved in the way you need for your political aims, and have the narrative cheerfully point out that that’s exactly what the guy who provided the prophecy knew you’d do, so he made sure you’d get the right person who will do what actually needs doing.
    Now I think the writing could be better, but I still love the stories. ABEbooks has a couple cheap copies.

  11. I like a lot of the ones already listed.

    I’ll add, not a novel but a picture book: Raising Dragons, by Jerdine Nolen. Lots of fun.

  12. Ooh if we’re doing picture books, The Paperbag Princess by Munsch! I love that book for so many reasons, but yes, it has a dragon.

    SarahZ, I was going to mention Pern too! I still love those dragons, but unfortunately I have a hard time re-reading McCaffrey.

  13. Love the paper bag princess! The board book version was in really heavy rotation with my girls – it was one of the first books my older daughter tried “reading” to me, back when she first started to talk (that or The Monster at the End of This Book). She did a great job with the dragon sounds.

  14. Irina, thank you for the idea! I don’t know why that never occurred to me! I’m searching for some now.

    SarahZ, priceless! I’ve just added the board book to my list of gifts for new moms.

  15. The dragons in Mercedes Lackey’s Alta series. They are animals. Beautiful and smart animals but not sapient, nor magical. Humans treat them much like (expensive purebred) horses or dogs, there is a lot of feeding, grooming and training going on and they are affectionate when they are treated well.

    And I wouldn’t mind visiting the world as a tourist either. It’s basically Ancient Egypt with magic and dragons.

  16. Maria, those sound like dragons I’d really enjoy! Thanks for pointing to this series.

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